British Open 2015: Postcard Stories From St. Andrews, July 16

July 17, 2015

E-card No. 3

Thursday night, July 16, 2015

St. Andrews, Scotland

Carl Pettersson is a Swedish golfer who lives in North Carolina and is a five-time winner on the PGA Tour. After shooting a first-round 72 on the Old Course, he conducted a series of interviews in Swedish, a language he stopped using regularly when he moved with his family to the U.S. at age 10. He was drinking a Coke from a bottle and wearing a wind-shirt stamped with Mutual of Omaha. The only English you heard was when he needed a phrase like out of bounds. When he was done I asked him about his commute to work this week. Like Phil Mickelson and Bernhard Langer and various others, Carl is staying in the Old Course Hotel, separated from the 17th hole by the most famous O.B. wall in golf.

“Couldn’t be easier,” Carl said cheerfully. “I come out of the back of the hotel, jump over the wall, walk across 17 fairway, then 2 fairway, and then I’m at the players’ lounge.” With his golf shoes already on and the driving range awaiting him.

The Old Course Hotel is a modern eyesore, but it has an ideal location and excellent water pressure, which is why so many well-heeled Americans, native-born and naturalized, favor it this week. The hotel is owned by the affable Herb Kohler, the plumbing-supplies mogul, who also owns Whistling Straits, site of next month’s PGA Championship, and several luxurious hotels near it. A bunch of players are giving Mr. Kohler a lot of business this year. Herb’s a people-person and a golf-nut and the players don’t seem to mind a bit.

RELATED: Postcard Stories Day 1 | Postcard Stories Day 2

When I first played the Old Course, 30 years ago, the various tourist brochures were quite specific about how to play No. 17, the Road Hole. There were abandoned dark-green train sheds, adjacent to the hotel and stenciled with the hotel name. Players were instructed to hit draw shots over the O in Old Course Hotel—sometimes another letter was recommended—and if you had the nerve and skill to do it your ball would find a patch of fairway that was little more than a rumor.

I thought about that the other day when Jordan Spieth said he likes to pick really specific targets, which is not often easy to do on a linksland course. Jordan talked about how his swing coach, Cameron McCormick, a Texan by way of Australia, likes to say, “Aim small, miss small.” It’s really a first-cousin to what another Texas golf teacher, Harvey Penick, used to say: “Take dead aim.”

I was curious to see how Jordan, playing the first competitive round of his life on the Old Course, would navigate the Road Hole. The back tee on the par-4 now stretches out the hole to nearly 500 yards and you can’t see a bit of fairway from the tee. The old train sheds—or replica train sheds, more accurately—and the lettering on its walls are meaningless from that back tee.

But there is, this week, a giant bleacher beyond the first green that the players can plainly see from the 17th tee and on top of that bleacher there are four flags, two Open flags, one flag of Scotland and one American flag. And you could see, with his driver in hand, Jordan Spieth aimed directly for that American flag on Thursday and ripped his drive right at it. From the left side of the fairway he dumped his approach shot into the Road Hole bunker and made bogey. It’s still a wild, interesting challenging hole, dominated by the bunker and odd green. But this week nobody is playing pick-a-letter on the tee box.

Jordan’s group was finishing as Phil Mickelson’s was going off, right around 3 p.m. I slipped out myself right about then for an afternoon golf game at the sporty seaside course in Elie, about 12 back-road miles away from St. Andrews. I played with my friend John Garrity, a most companionable golf partner, and when we could we found chimneys and windows and, in one desperate case, a gorse bush for which to aim. Or a driving stake. On some of the holes, all you can see is a featureless hillock and a metal stake in the middle of it. We would hit it at the stake.

The afternoon was gray, windy and cold and we were having a great time but we were discovering all over again that take-dead-aim doesn’t travel well to Scotland. Jordan said yesterday he likes all the bleachers on the Old Course. That’s not surprising. Useful for finding his “lines.”

At one point in our round at Elie, John and I saw a welcome sight that I had never before seen on a course: two girls, maybe 9 years old, playing by themselves. They had no parental supervision, they carried their own little bags and they sat calmly on the grass when there was a backup on one tee. One of the girls borrowed our fairway for a hole, hit a little line-drive to get off it, and then went running after her shot. If she was taking dead aim it was for her playing partner. She raised a hand in the air by way of apology while she scurried back to her fairway. Delightful.

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